Types of Local, County, and State Law Enforcement

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Law enforcement professionals prevent and investigate crime in addition to maintaining peace and safety. People working in law enforcement may include patrol officers, detectives, forensics investigators, and probation, parole, and corrections officers.

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two officers discuss in front of two police cars with lights flashing at night

Police officers often pursue a career path with a specific focus. These may include careers such as:

  • Highway patrol officer
  • Detective
  • Crime scene investigator
  • K-9 officer
  • Park ranger
  • Narcotics officer
  • Game warden

Community-based programs are a growing trend, both in law enforcement and other criminal justice fields, according to Vesna Markovic, Chair and Associate Professor of Justice, Law and Public Safety Studies at Lewis University in Illinois.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about law enforcement based on what people see on TV,” Markovic says. “It involves a lot more than that.”

Community-oriented policing focuses on preventing crime by building positive relationships with residents. Police use a number of strategies, such as regular foot patrol in neighborhoods and visiting private businesses, community organizations, and using outreach such as social media.

What’s the Difference Between Local, State, and Federal Law Enforcement?

Primarily, the difference between local, state, and federal law enforcement officials is who they work for and their jurisdiction. For instance, state-level officials work for a state agency and enforce state laws, but have no jurisdiction in federal matters; local sheriffs or police officers work for municipalities and enforce local and state laws within that municipality, but generally have no jurisdiction outside of that area.

Municipal | County | State | Federal

Municipal Law Enforcement

In towns and cities, police officers will patrol streets by car or highway, provide traffic assistance, respond to emergencies and calls for help, and maintain peace and security. If a crime occurs, they may investigate, interview people, and apprehend suspects. They also testify in court. Police detectives concentrate on investigations, while crime scene investigators are charged with gathering and analyzing evidence.

Some municipal police also provide protection for parks, public transportation, and local rivers and lakes, but in larger cities, these duties are often performed by specialized police units. Some sworn officers are employed as private police for schools, universities, or hospitals.


County Law Enforcement

All but three states (Alaska, Hawaii, and Connecticut) have law enforcement that work on the county level, but their jurisdictions and duties vary widely. They may perform full police functions, including investigations, in rural areas outside of towns and cities. Or, they may patrol county roads and assist in traffic control, serve summons and eviction notices, transport prisoners, or provide security at county courthouses or corrections facilities.

A handful of states have constables. They may be elected officials with limited duties, or employed as full-duty officers. 


State Law Enforcement

Specific duties of state-level law enforcement officials differ from state to state. All states have officers that enforce traffic laws and keep roadways safe. These are usually called troopers or highway patrol officers. However, in some states, there is a difference between a state police officer and a highway patrolman. For example, in California, the job of policing highways and roads falls to the California Highway Patrol. Investigating statewide crimes is the job of the California Bureau of Investigation. In other states, the state police department will provide services for both highway patrol and crime investigation.

Fish and game wardens or conservation officers are also generally employed on the state level. They monitor the safe and legal usage of public parks, waterways, forests, and open areas. They may enforce hunting and fishing laws, investigate crimes, and respond to emergencies.


Federal Law Enforcement

Federal law enforcement agents serve in many capacities, from providing security for federal buildings and elected officials to investigating federal crimes and responding to terrorist attacks.


What are Cyber Police?

Cyber policing is a fast-growing field of law enforcement. It operates mainly on the federal level, but local and state police do use digital technology to some extent.

“Cybercrime is under reported,” says Markovic. “If somebody hacks your computer, you don’t usually call the police.”

However, if the crime takes place on a major scale, such as data breach or ransomware attack, cyber police get involved, Markovic says. On the local and state levels, specialized police officers do use computer technology to detect and investigate crimes and suspects.

Becoming a cyber specialist or forensic computer analyst requires knowledge of technology and a college degree. Like any job in law enforcement, you will be required to attend a police training facility and undergo a background check.

Forensic computer specialists are also employed by private firms, Markovic states. 

What is a Peace Officer?

In most cases, the term “peace officer” is used interchangeably with “police officer,” since police consider their main objective to be keeping the peace. This can be confusing because in a few places across the country, “peace officer” refers to an officer who has limited duties. Some states refer to this role as auxiliary or reserve officer. Non-sworn peace officers may be employed, appointed, or elected.

Some assignments of designated peace officers differ greatly but may include:

  • Security duties
  • Traffic and crowd control
  • Working in correctional facilities
  • Assisting with search and rescue operations
  • Assisting police officers with designated duties

How are Law Enforcement Agencies Structured?

Almost all agencies are organized according to a chain of command similar to the military. Municipal departments are typically directed by a chief or superintendent, followed by commanders, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and officers. The rank of detective is often separate or may also combined with other ranks, such as a detective sergeant.

On the county level, the sheriff might be an elected position, while sheriff’s police or deputies are hired personnel.

It’s common for new officers to start at the lower ranks and earn promotions as they gain more experience and acquire more knowledge and skill. In most departments, you must pass a test and undergo training before advancing to the next level.

Each promotion will bring a boost of salary and additional or different responsibilities. Other factors that affect salary include the size of the agency, the area of the country, and the individual officer’s amount of experience. 


karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

vesna markovic

With professional insight from:

Vesna Markovic

Chair and Associate Professor of Justice, Lewis University, Romeoville, IL